Leo and Carolyn Johnson met cutting down a Christmas tree when they were students at what was then-Southwest Missouri State University.
Decades later, the Johnsons are planting a future for other Bears.
They recently established the Leo and Carolyn Mirts Johnson Endowed Scholarship Fund. It will create full tuition scholarships for students from Callaway or Douglas counties who are pursuing degrees in general business or accounting.
“We wanted to give back to people from the areas from which we were raised,” said Carolyn.
She grew up in Fulton, Missouri. Leo is from Ava.
The scholarship will cover tuition for four years for general business majors, or five years for students in accounting.
Lisa Clark, the director of planned giving for Missouri State’s office of developmeƒnt and alumni relations, said this gift will affect a significant number of students from rural counties.
“This is an endowed scholarship, so it will exist forever,” Clark said. “This will truly change the trajectory of the lives of some of our students.”
Finding their futures at MSU
The couple, who lives in Columbia, Missouri, say they have been successful and do not have any children.
They both come from small families. Leo is an only child. Carolyn has two siblings, but neither of them had children.
“You start to look around and wonder, where are you going to leave (your estate) if there’s something to leave?” said Leo.
They decided to leave it to Missouri State, where they fell in love and have fond memories.
Leo and Carolyn met through their roommates, who were dating. On a cold December night in 1969, the women decided they wanted to cut down a Christmas tree. The men tagged along.
It was also in college that Leo realized his aptitude for investing. He was assigned to research companies and suggest stocks to buy.
One particular professor often asked Leo for investment suggestions, even semesters after the class was done.
“I inquired as to what he did with them,” Leo said. “He told me I did very good work on the research and he had made a lot of money investing on my recommendations. That is when I decided maybe I could do the same for myself.”
Working in finance, accounting
And so he did.
Leo graduated in 1970 with a finance degree. He landed a job at Phillips Petroleum in Bartlesville, Oklahoma.
The couple married, and Carolyn decided to suspend her studies for a time. She eventually went back to school in Oklahoma and became a CPA. She is an “accounting genius,” Leo said.
Carolyn spent most of her career as controller and then CFO of Star Building Systems in Oklahoma City, a manufacturer of pre-engineered metal buildings.
Leo worked for 25 years at the Oklahoma Department of Securities. He regulated stockbrokers and investment advisors.
In fact, he was working across from the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995, when the building was bombed. Leo looked out the window of his office and saw a parked truck. Then he turned around, picked up some files and sat down.
“The next thing I knew I was on the floor in front of my desk. It had blown me across the desk,” Leo said.
Leo suffered extensive injuries and required 100 stitches.
Loving retirement, giving back
The Johnsons eventually retired in Oklahoma.
But in 2011, they decided to relocate. Leo and Carolyn are avid golfers and wanted a milder climate.
They considered Springfield because of their great memories of MSU. However, Carolyn’s parents live near Fulton, so they decided on Columbia. They now live at a golf course community and absolutely love it.
A few years ago, they started asking themselves where they would leave their remaining estate.
“This seemed like the best way to be able to do some good if we have something to leave,” Leo said.
Their alma mater seemed like a natural choice, as did helping students in their rural communities.
Because of their generosity, students in these counties have a chance to graduate debt-free or nearly debt-free.
“For those who want to go to college,” said Carolyn, “I think that they need to be able to have a good start in life.”